The hidden agenda: how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris Agreement
by Kevin Anderson, kevinanderson.info
The Paris Agreement is a genuine triumph of international diplomacy and of how the French people brought an often-fractious world together to see beyond national self interest. Moreover, the agreement is testament to how assiduous and painstaking science ultimately defeated the unremitting programme of misinformation by powerful vested interests. It is the twenty-first century’s equivalent to the success of Heliocentrism over the malign and unscientific inquisition.
The international community not only acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, but demonstrated sufficient unanimity to quantitatively define it: to hold “the increase in … temperature to well below 2°C … and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. But, as the time-weary idiom suggests, “the devil is in the detail” – or perhaps more importantly, the lack of it.
So how then can such an unprecedented and momentous Agreement have potentially sown the seeds of its own demise? Likewise, why did some amongst the senior echelons of the climate change community see fit to unleash their rottweilers on those scientists voicing legitimate concern as to the evolving detail of the Agreement?
The deepest challenge to whether the Agreement succeeds or fails, will not come from the incessant sniping of sceptics and luke-warmers or those politicians favouring a literal reading of Genesis over Darwin. Instead, it was set in train many years ago by a cadre of well-meaning scientists, engineers and economists investigating a Plan B. What if the international community fails to recognise that temperatures relate to ongoing cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide? What if world leaders remain doggedly committed to a scientifically illiterate focus on 2050 (“not in my term of office”)? By then, any ‘carbon budget’ for even an outside chance of 2°C will have been squandered – and our global experiment will be hurtling towards 4°C or more. Hence the need to develop a Plan B.
Well the answer was simple. If we choose to continue our love affair with oil, coal and gas, loading the atmosphere with evermore carbon dioxide, then at some later date when sense prevails, we’ll be forced to attempt sucking our carbon back out of the atmosphere. Whilst a plethora of exotic Dr Strangelove options vie for supremacy to deliver on such a grand project, those with the ear of governments have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising “negative emission technology”. However these government advisors (Integrated Assessment Modellers – clever folk developing ‘cost-optimised’ solutions to 2°C by combining physics with economic and behavioural modelling) no longer see negative emission technologies as a last ditch Plan B – but rather now promote it as central pivot of the one and only Plan.
So what exactly does BECCS entail? Apportioning huge swathes of the planet’s landmass to the growing of bio-energy crops (from trees to tall grasses) – which, as they grow, absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Periodically these crops are harvested; processed for worldwide travel; shipped all around the globe and finally combusted in thermal powerstations. The carbon dioxide is then stripped from the waste gases; compressed (almost to a liquid); pumped through large pipes over potentially very long distances; and finally stored deep underground in various geological formations (from exhausted oil and gas reservoirs through to saline aquifers) for a millennium or so.
The unquestioned reliance on negative emission technologies to deliver on the Paris goals is the greatest threat to the Agreement. Yet BECCS, or even negative emission technologies, received no direct reference throughout the thirty-two-page Paris Agreement. Despite this, the framing of the 2°C and (even more) the 1.5°C, goals, is fundamentally premised on the massive uptake of BECCS sometime in the latter half of the century. Disturbingly, this reliance on BECCS is also the case for most of the temperature estimates (e.g. 2.7°C) ascribed to the national pledges (INDCs) prior to the Paris COP.